Vadim asks: Peace Corps or Teach for America?

Believe it or not, I am currently applying for the Peace Corps. My ideal location would be Latin America, with an assignment in community development.

According to the Peace Corps website, the Peace Corps mission consists of three basic goals:

  1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Make no mistake, I have no illusions about the Peace Corps. While the volunteers are well-meaning, I suspect it is a bureaucratic monster, a tool of imperialism, a mild-mannered sibling to the military.  

Just look at the first goal: “Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.”

Now, I could go on and on about the danger of using the word “helping,” and the connotation of “helplessness” that it carries.  Many human rights activists, indigenous scholars and Peace Corps veterans are discussing the danger of the word, and the discussion isn’t pretty.

On January 9, the New York Times ran an editorial by Robert L. Strauss, a veteran Peace Corps volunteer, recruiter and country director. Strauss sees a difference in the original goals of the Peace Corps in the 1960s and what it must become now:

Back then, enthusiastic young Americans offered something that many newly independent nations counted in double and even single digits: college graduates. But today, those same nations have millions of well-educated citizens of their own desperately in need of work. So it’s much less clear what inexperienced Americans have to offer.

The Peace Corps has long shipped out well-meaning young people possessing little more than good intentions and a college diploma. What the agency should begin doing is recruiting only the best of recent graduates — as the top professional schools do — and only those older people whose skills and personal characteristics are a solid fit for the needs of the host country.

Strauss goes on to criticize the concept of inexperienced Americans teaching people how to improve their ways of life and work:

In Cameroon, we had many volunteers sent to serve in the agriculture program whose only experience was puttering around in their mom and dad’s backyard during high school. I wrote to our headquarters in Washington to ask if anyone had considered how an American farmer would feel if a fresh-out-of-college Cameroonian with a liberal arts degree who had occasionally visited Grandma’s cassava plot were sent to Iowa to consult on pig-raising techniques learned in a three-month crash course. I’m pretty sure the American farmer would see it as a publicity stunt and a bunch of hooey, but I never heard back from headquarters.

Another problem within the Peace Corps is its tendency to send, as Strauss writes, “unqualified volunteers to teach English when nearly every developing country could easily find high-caliber English teachers among its own population.” Many more times, the need is less for English or agricultural teachers than for assistants in computer-literacy labs (and computer labs themselves).

It would be a mistake for us, as the passengers of Zakaria’s limo, to assume that we can tell others how to better live their lives. We must listen and learn and ask.

So why am I applying for the Peace Corps, you ask?

Well, for purely selfish reasons. I want very badly to become fluent in Spanish. I want to experience the flaws and benefits of the Peace Corps system for myself, after hearing the endless criticisms. I want to observe how well-meaning U.S. volunteers relate with cultures they do not understand. I want to live and work in another country for two years in order to experience something outside of my bubble.

I rather expect that my experience in the Peace Corps will be frustrating, and I may even disagree with much of what I do. However, I am not content with living in the U.S. after graduation, and I do not currently have the means to move to another country without some programmatic guidance.

Maybe, just maybe, some like-minded volunteers and I can whip the Peace Corps into shape once our terms are over.


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